Cobell Brings Her Case To Arizona
Cobell, a Montana rancher and banker, is the lead plaintiff in Cobell vs Norton, the longest and largest class-action lawsuit brought against the government.
Indians from the Gila River Indian Community listened attentively as lawyers recounted the words of Mary Johnson, a Navajo who recently testified at a court hearing in Washington, D.C.
Johnson spoke in Navajo, translated for the court, when she told how oil wells on her property have been running 24-7 since the 1930s. Until recently the checks never topped $100 per month. She also stated that when the government came on her property to put in a pipeline for the oil they dug up her mother’s grave and moved it away.
The issue goes back to 1887 when the government allotted lands from 40 to 160 acres to individual Indians, then leased that land for oil drilling, farming, grazing, mining and other enterprises. More than 500,000 individuals have been affected and the estimates in losses are more then $100 billion.
The government was supposed to distribute the money to individuals but has been unable to account for the funds blaming lost records, poor computer systems and incompetent administrators. More than 500,000 individuals have been affected and the estimates in losses exceed $100 billion.
In June, the tribes offered to settle the account for $27.5 billion.
The goal of Cobell’s visit is to “update all of the individual Indians about where we are with the suit and tell them about the dirty tricks the government is playing on us.” Lawyers say the government has lied to the courts and has been sanctioned for destroying documents pertinent to the cases.
Earlier this year, Cobell met with AZ Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, to discuss a way to settle the case. McCain has stated the $27.5 billion settlement is “out of sight” and Congress would never approve it.
Although Arizona tribes are less affected than some Eastern tribes with oil leases, there were allotted lands on the Gila Reservation, the Salt River Reservation and the Tohono O’Odham Reservation. Hundreds of Arizona tribal members may be owed money although no one knows how much.
Interior Secretary Gale Norton and her predecessor Bruce Babbitt, a former Arizona governor, say it is impossible to provide an accurate accounting.
Last month, Judge Royce C. Lamberth, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia who was assigned the Cobell case in 1996 issued a ruling stating that information from the Department of the Interior is unreliable.
“Perhaps Interior’s past and present leaders have been evil people, deriving their pleasure from inflicting harm on society’s most vulnerable people. Real justice for the Indians may still be in the distant future; it may never come at all.”
The Interior Department has asked for his removal from the bench.
This column has been edited for length and content from two stories appearing in The Arizona Republic bylined Judy Nichols and a “Mother Jones” Internet article.
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